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Do All Plants Score Eco-Gold?

Let the gardening games begin…

The hottest sport of spring is now playing out in gardens across the country, with eager shoppers lining up at their local nursery to seize upon the brightest flowers, the shapeliest shrubs, and the most climbable trees. For most people, the criteria is simply to finding the prettiest, most likely to thrive seeds and starters.

That it will be good for the planet is a given, ‘cuz any plant is just as good as the next one in terms of environmental value, right?

Not so fast, competitors. While all plants do contribute to our world in some way, whether by producing oxygen or sheltering wildlife, some have far more perks than others when it comes to water-savings, pollinators, and more.

Let’s dig in. The plant world is a many-wondered place, so we’ll dig into just a few ways you can judge between the Bronze, Silver, and Gold plants of a typical yard—with a little help from the Field Museum’s Abigail Derby Lewis, PhD, and Rebecca Collings, MS, and the Morton Arboretum’s Nicole Cavender, PhD.

Judging Basics: Rank the Array of Benefits

In figure skating, judges don’t just pick the winner based on technical skill—there are a whole host of program categories they use to rank competitors, too. In this spring’s plant selection games, taking this more holistic view of strengths can serve your yard or garden well.

“I want to know about the multiple functions that something is providing,” says Derby Lewis, who finds it problematic to talk about any one plant benefit as separate from the overall picture—whether it’s aesthetics, ability to store carbon, or its support of pollinators.

Fill your wheelbarrow with the best of the best! (Amy Senese)
Fill your wheelbarrow with the best of the best! (Amy Senese)

“When you compartmentalize all these pieces, you can really miss out on the ability to have a more diverse and resilient and functioning system,” she says. “Plus, when you go through the different possibilities of what any one plant can do, you may find intriguing co-benefits you didn’t know existed!”

Many people might opt for different plant selections if they simply knew how many diverse benefits native plants provide—and how great they can look in a yard or garden.

It doesn’t have to be hard to expand your view, either. You probably don’t go to the grocery store and pick things based on one category, like, say, color, right?

So, in the spirit of easily expanding your shopping criteria, we’ve rounded up a few optional scoring categories:

  • Looks: Is it pretty/do you like it?
  • Viability: Can it grow well in your space?
  • Fauna-friendliness: Will it support wildlife?
  • Thirst level: Can it tolerate dry spells?
  • Water management: Does it hold stormwater in the soil with long roots?
  • Air-effect: How much carbon can it store in its roots?

Let’s take a little tour of the arena, that is, the average backyard.

Winning Ground on the, um, Ground

First up, the mighty ground cover. ­ Many homes in the U.S. come pre-set with a lawn, so lots of peeps may have never even considered the question of turf grass versus longer-rooted native grasses. While turf grass does create oxygen and give people a green place to play, co-benefits go up exponentially when you opt for native grasses, explain Collings and Derby Lewis.

“Many native prairie grasses, like big bluestem, little bluestem, and indian grass, have long roots—often several feet deep as compared to the roots of lawn grass, which are only a few inches,” says Collings.

“The main benefit of these long roots is what is happening below ground—long roots help break up compacted soil and create more pathways in the soil that allow more water to soak directly into the ground.” Those long roots also help the grass drink up water that’s deeper in the soil, even in the sweltering summer months, so you don’t have to water them as much as turf.

All that said, they are naturally taller above ground than turf, so though they earn gold in the water use and looks categories, they don’t score as well among the croquet-playing set who prefer the playable surfaces of turf grass.

Goldenrod FTW, sportin' cheery colors AND attractive to beneficial bugs like this soldier beetle. (Beth Kosson)
Goldenrod FTW, sportin’ cheery colors AND attractive to beneficial bugs like this soldier beetle. (Beth Kosson)

Of course, another popular way to cover ye olde ground is to cover it with flowers.

Though she’s a tree scientist by day, Nicole Cavender is a flower devotee at home. “I love flowers, bright flowers that live in full sun…and I want a butterfly garden because I promised my kids I would help feed the monarchs.”

Yes, that’s right—while any flower can be pretty, depending on your taste, some can be extra-attractive to important pollinators like butterflies and bees.

For her part, Cavender is going for flowering prairie plants this year, like milkweeds, lobelias, coneflowers, silphiums, and goldenrods. (Inspired? Ready, set, start your own butterfly garden!)

Everyone Loves an Understory

Bushes, vines, and shrubs can be a lovely way to border a yard, add privacy and visual interest, and create a great place for critters to hide, live, and play—necessities according to the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat guidelines.

So, what to plant? Collings names a few native shrubs that can be pretty and provide food and shelter for wildlife.

“The best pick will depend on site conditions,” she says, “but a few that do well [in the Chicago area] include hazelnut, serviceberry, and native viburnums.” Scoring far fewer points on our scale would be invasive shrubs like Japanese honesyuckles, which push out other plants.

(Honeysuckle fan? Don’t worry: the NWF lists a few native options, depending on your region, like the trumpet honeysuckle, whose nectar attracts hummingbirds and even orioles. The American bittersweet is another top NWF pick for eastern North Americans, because it’s colorful and because its seeds are an important food source for songbirds, grouse, quail, chipmunks, and fox squirrels.)

Tree’s Company

From climbing fun to cleaner air, the right tree can make all the difference in your outdoor space. (Jessica B. Turner)
From climbing fun to cleaner air, the right tree can enrich your outdoor space for generations. (Jessica B. Turner)

Trees are an incredible return on investment, and yet, so many yards go without. Why? Perhaps because it can seem complex to put down the roots.

That’s why the Morton Arboretum has put together its handy guide to tree selection. Turns out, with a little expert guidance, you can find a perfect tree for pretty much anywhere.

And there are reasons a’plenty to do so: Tree benefits range from reducing stormwater runoff to cleaning the air we breathe and even cooling off the planet. They help us save on energy bills at home, providing shade so we can ease up on the AC in summer, and, in the case of evergreens, blocking winds in winter to save 3 percent on heating.

All that plus the beauty, the possibility for play, the sound of birds twittering… Yes, trees are awesome, and broadly speaking, planting any tree is better than not planting one.

But once again, some have way more benefits than others. Examples of trees that are gold vs ones that, well, aren’t?

Consider the hardy tree of heaven. Sure, Derby Lewis says, these plants, which are native to China and Taiwan, seem to do well anywhere, including out of basement windows. But, they are well known for taking over and pushing out other species. For instance, according to a study in New York, they negatively impact invertebrate populations.

Compare that to the mighty oak—native species in the U.S. support roughly 500 species of invertebrates—and oak wins the gold. Why? Even though you may never even see the critters, the oak’s ability to maintain a diverse population of tiny organisms is critical to the whole ecological system because they provide food for birds and other animals, and are great pollinators.

Go for the Gold – One Plant at a Time

You don’t have to rip everything out to go for the gold. Our trio of experts recommends starting with a simple update.

Just spend one day or one weekend this year, says Cavender, examining the benefits of what’s in your yard. “You can begin to make your yard more positive for biodiversity or water conservation or whatever your goals are. Just pick one thing that would improve that benefit.”

For her part, Derby Lewis just moved into a new home and is herself implementing a multi-year improvement plan. “Maybe you want to add in more wildlife-friendly understory bushes or larger trees. Or, maybe you were already considering ripping out a bush? Think beyond honeysuckle! Chokecherry is a great alternative.” Just ask for it at the nursery, she says.

Butterfly-Simmons
Want butterfly-friendly stems? Ask the nursery pros for the best native options in your area. (D. Simmons)

Nurseries carry what they think we want, so Cavender says the more we ask for eco-gold plants, the more they’ll carry. Every time you ask, it helps. And every new tree or sweet bush or pretty little patch of native flowers we plant helps, too.

As Collings points out, your small patch of space on the planet can be knit together with other people’s to create habitat corridors, pollinator parkways, a backyard national park…It’s your chunk of the world, so why not win big with it?

Myth Outcome: Busted

Not all the plants in your yard have equal environmental benefits. Look at plant selection with a holistic sense of potential values, starting with “is it pretty?”, and including other considerations that make it a gold in any book.

One Green Thing

Kosson_EcoMythsAllianceOGT_Plant multi-beneficial plants(1)
Myth BUSTED: In a yard, all plants are created equal

This spring, plant something new that will have multiple benefits in your yard.

For example, try a coneflower, which packs a triple punch for its prettiness, drought-tolerance, and its seemingly magnetic charge for butterflies and other pollinators.

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